Year of Meteors by Douglas R. Egerton (1860)

yearofmeteors1860 Election Results

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I had not come across this book when it was published back in 2010, but with the renewed interest in all things Lincoln, I was intrigued about a book about the backroom politics that resulted in Lincoln’s election in 1860. Egerton’s book though is not mostly about Lincoln, who is something of a supporting character, but rather on the important figures of the time, whom history has more or less forgotten in the wake of the 16th President’s accomplishments.

The most important character in the book is Lincoln’s Illinois rival, Stephen Douglas. Coming into the election of 1860, Douglas was the most famous political figure in America. He possibly may have also been the most loved and most hated at the same time. In trying to come up with a solution to the territorial expansion of slavery, Douglas came up with a plan that made things worse, popular sovereignty, which would allow the residents of the territories choose for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. This led to even more strife.

In 1860, there were four major candidates for president and one “third party” candidate who drew significant support. The Democrats ended up having four different conventions in two different cities. Southern extremists, called “Fire Eaters”, had no desire to compromise and hoped that the Democrats would fall apart, ensuring a Republican win that would force Southern states to secede. And that is what happened, as the Democrats nominated two candidates, Douglas, a Northerner who owned slaves in Arkansas (indirectly), and John Breckenridge, a Kentuckian who actually didn’t own any slaves.

The Democrats originally convened in Charleston, but could not agree on a nominee because the party required any nominee to get 2/3 of the votes of the delegates. Eventually, some of the Southern states walked out. Some of them tried to form their own convention in another part of Charleston. That didn’t work, so they gave up and agreed to meet again in Baltimore. Then, they split up again and each group nominated its own ticket. Egerton makes the point that the Democrats could have avoided much of this mess if they had chosen their nominee by majority vote and also apportioned state delegate totals by party strength in the state instead of by electoral votes, which ended up giving a lot of votes at the conventions to Democrats from places like Massachusetts, where they stood almost no chance of winning. (Lincoln would win Massachusetts with over 60% of the vote.)

The Republicans were expected to nominate New York Senator William Seward, but the party believed that he would be considered too radical and would not have carried states like Pennsylvania or Ohio (or even New York), so the party turned to Lincoln, who was a popular, yet lightly-regarded figure at the time.

Unusual for the time, the election of 1860 played out the way, political experts of the day thought it would back in June of that year. The Republicans carried all of the Northern states, and only appeared on the ballot in one state that would eventually secede: Virginia. Breckinridge won most of the South. Douglas won only in Missouri and a few electoral votes in New Jersey despite finishing second in the popular vote. Compromise candidate John Bell of Tennessee finished third in the electoral vote despite never espousing any platform. Lincoln won with the lowest popular vote percentage ever, just 39.65%. To a certain extent, Douglas, Breckinridge, and Bell all hoped that no one would win a majority of the electoral vote and then force a House vote to decide the Presidency, but they were not very good at math.

After Lincoln’s election, South Carolina and Georgia started the secession movement. There were last ditch efforts at compromise, but the Republicans would not back them, primarily because they granted an expansion of slavery into the territories. Also, Lincoln did not want to come into office with his hands tied to a policy he didn’t support. And so the nation headed off on into the Civil War. The Southern Fire Eaters, whose ideology was based on white supremacy and an antiquated economic system, got their wish of plunging the nation into a bloody conflict. The South thought that the North would cave easily, one in an increasingly great series of miscalculations they would make. The South, while wanting to preserve its “way of life” actually wanted to preserve its economic power, something the North was happy to take from them.

Egerton’s book does a tremendous job of looking at the events of 1860 almost as if you were living at the time. You wouldn’t have thought in 1860 that Abraham Lincoln would become one of the most important historical figures of all time. You would have thought Stephen Douglas was bound for that. But Douglas would die early in 1861, a victim of his own alcoholism. Lincoln’s fame persists. Other figures played their parts in a drama that we hope we never see again.

Odds and ends: At the top of each post, I will put up the results of the election or elections covered in each post. The results will be listed in order of electoral votes received, not popular votes. However, the 1860 election remains the only one to have such an anomalous result. Douglas appeared on the ballot on more states than Lincoln.

Senator Benjamin Fitzpatrick of Alabama was originally chosen as Douglas’ running mate, but he declined the nomination. Herschel Johnson of Georgia took his place.

Most election data will be taken from Dave Liep’s U.S. Election Atlas, which is a free source of a lot of interesting election data. Please note that the site uses RED on its maps for Democratic wins and BLUE for Republican wins. The colors used by television networks today were chosen arbitrarily.

John Breckinridge was serving as a Senator when the Civil War began. He sided with the Confederacy (despite Kentucky not seceding). He was expelled from the Senate for his actions. He later served in the Confederate government and, after the Civil War ended, fled to Europe to live in exile until an amnesty allowed him to return to Kentucky in 1868.

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Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism by Jules Tygiel

President #40, C-SPAN Historians ranking #10

40 is the new -30-

Of the nine Presidents who have been in office in my lifetime, none had the impact that Ronald Reagan has had. Ronald Reagan succeeded in transforming not just the office of the Presidency, but also the nature of how politics and government is viewed by the country overall. To the Republicans of today, he is revered like no one else in the party, at times outstripping Abraham Lincoln in fame. To the Democrats of today, he is mostly reviled, although sometimes begrudgingly respected.

For historians and biographers, Ronald Reagan is a popular, yet somewhat difficult subject. Edmund Morris lived with Reagan during almost all of his eight years in office. And yet, he could not truly figure out who Reagan was. So, Morris created a fictional character as the narrator for his biography of Reagan called Dutch.

Lou Cannon, a longtime reporter in Sacramento, had a career of covering Ronald Reagan. He wrote a twovolume biography of Reagan. And Cannon never came close to figuring just who Ronald Reagan was.

I opted for a shorter tome, written by San Francisco State University professor Jules Tygiel. Tygiel, who passed away in 2008, is best known for writing a history of Jackie Robinson’s experience with the Brooklyn Dodgers called Baseball’s Great Experiment. Tygiel also wrote a book on the Julian Oil scandal called The Great Los Angeles Swindle.

One of the reasons for choosing this book is that I actually had corresponded several times with Tygiel about baseball history, and found that he was very generous and giving of his time. He was always willing to help out a researcher if he could. So, since I had a gift card to a bookstore, I picked up his book, figuring that his family would get some royalties for this. (Also, I would finish this series a lot sooner.)

Tygiel’s book is, like nearly all of the others I’ve read for this blog, a synthesis of many other writers works. The book is actually intended to be used as a college textbook. Nevertheless, Tygiel injects his opinion of Reagan’s time as President frequently. To Tygiel, Reagan’s biggest contributions (as the title would indicate) were ideological, but his actual achievements may have been less than what his reputation merits. As an aside, I have found this to be the case with every President from George Washington on. The better job that a President did, the more people expect more to have been achieved.

The book takes a while to get to Reagan’s Presidency, but that is hard not to do for someone who was not inaugurated until he was 70. And Reagan’s journey through life gives insight into how he made what was an unlikely career path from studio contract actor to conservative political icon. Continue reading

Ulysses S. Grant by Josiah Bunting III

President #18, C-SPAN historians’ ranking #23

Read this unconditionally

Americans have never been shy about making their military heroes Presidents. They have ranged from the great (George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt) to pretty darn good (Andrew Jackson and Dwight Eisenhower) to the quickly dead (William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor).

Ulysses S. Grant was undoubtedly one of America’s greatest generals, leading the Union Army to a victory in the nation’s bloodiest conflict, the Civil War. As a President, Grant is much harder to read. Back in 2000, historians ranked him #33. But, by 2009, Grant had risen ten spots in the rankings.

What had happened to Grant’s reputation in that time to pull him out of Herbert Hoover and Millard Fillmore territory? Grant’s Presidency was rife with scandals, including one where he had to dump his Vice President when running for re-election, only to replace him with a man who was caught up in the same scandal.

Josiah Bunting III, who served in the Army and also worked at the Virginia Military Institute as well as West Point in addition to writing novels, tries to present the case that Grant’s Presidency was more than just a series of scandals. He presents Grant as a leader, who while a bit too keen to delegate work to people who were not competent or honest, but also as a strong supporter of civil rights for the newly freed slaves. Grant also wins praise from Bunting for trying (although ultimately unsuccessfully) to reform government policy toward Native Americans.

Was Grant as good of a President as he was a general? No. But was he the 19th Century’s answer to Richard Nixon? No, far from that. Grant was not a paranoid man. He was not personally corrupt. He firmly believed he was always in the right. And, he never forgot his friends. Unfortunately, Grant could have benefited from having a higher class of friends.

Ulysses S. Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 27, 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio. When he was 17, his father, Jesse, managed to get him a nomination to West Point. The Congressman writing the nomination, Thomas Hamer, thought Jesse’s son bore his mother’s maiden name as his middle name. So, Hamer nominated Ulysses Simpson Grant for an appoint to the United States Military Academy. Grant decided to stick with this name.

Grant’s West Point class had only 39 graduates. Grant ranked 21st in his class. He served as a quartermaster at the Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. But, world events thrust Grant into much different duty.

The border between the United States and Mexico in Texas was becoming subject of a heated dispute between the two countries. Grant joined what became known as the Army of Observation, under the command of General Zachary Taylor. This group ultimately forced the start of the Mexican War by engaging Mexican forces in a disputed territory.

Grant enjoyed serving under Taylor. He liked Taylor’s “Rough and Ready” approach. Grant believed it was best to lead soldiers not by wearing fancy dress, but rather by just getting the job done. Grant would always be known for eschewing dress uniforms when he could. Grant won plaudits for his service during the war.

When the war was over, Grant married Julia Dent in 1848. He was soon dispatched to the West Coast as the population there boomed because of the California Gold Rush. During his long absences from Julia, Grant began to develop a drinking problem. Whether or not Grant was an alcoholic cannot be determined, but, Grant would be branded throughout his life as a drunkard by his enemies.

Regardless, Grant’s drinking caused him to resign his Army commission in 1854. He returned home to Jesse and his growing family in the St. Louis area. After a succession of dead-end jobs, Grant and his family moved to Galena, Illinois in 1860

And, as we should know, the Civil War began in April of 1861. Grant offered his services to the Governor of Illinois. He was named a colonel of a volunteer regiment. Then, he quickly moved up to brigadier general. In August of 1861, Grant was given command of all Union troops in Southern Illinois. When the Confederate Army took over the city of Columbus, Kentucky, Grant was ordered to retake the city.

Grant’s men engaged the Confederates across the river from Columbus in the town of Belmont, Missouri. The Union won a rousing success. Grant was supposedly the last man to leave the battlefield.

Now, the Union Army was taking aim on Confederate defenses in the Ohio Valley. In the battle for Fort Donelson, Grant faced an old friend of his Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner. Buckner realized that his men were outnumbered and sent a message asking Grant for what his conditions for surrender would be. Grant famously replied, “No terms except immediate and unconditional surrender can be accepted.” From then on, many believed that U.S. Grant stood for “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”

Matthew Brady's iconic photo of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Cold Harbor, Virginia

From then on, Grant’s military career skyrocketed. The names of the battles are almost like a roll call of the famous battles of the Civil War: Shiloh, Vicksburg (which ended at about the same time as Gettysburg), Chattanooga, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Cold Harbor, Richmond, and, finally, Appomattox.

Grant’s victories were not for the faint of heart. He knew that numbers were on his side. Grant was denounced by his opponents as a “butcher.” However, President Lincoln firmly believed in Grant. As Lincoln reportedly said, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.” Grant rose to the rank of Lieutenant General, the first man to hold that title since George Washington.

Despite the high casualty rates, Grant’s men were extremely loyal to him. Grant did not enjoy the death toll, but, according to Bunting, Grant was certain that he was in the right. And Grant believed in “the certainty of victory.” Grant would push forward all the time. He would make the South pay for their actions.

When Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at Appomatox Court House, Grant no longer wished for unconditional surrender. Grant asked that Lee’s men simply surrender their arms and agree not to fight again. Lee’s men could then go home and try to rebuild their lives. Grant became General of the Army of the United States.

Lincoln had asked Grant and his wife to go with him to Ford’s Theater on that fateful April 14 of 1865. Grant declined, mostly because  Julia did not wish to spend a night with Mary Todd Lincoln. After Lincoln’s death, Vice President Andrew Johnson took over the role of bringing the country back together.

The next four years would nearly ruin the nation again. Johnson wished to immediately bring the Southern States back into the Union with full voting rights in Congress. Johnson, although a firmly believer in abolition, had no desire to see the freed slaves attain any other basic civil rights. Republicans in Congress resisted Johnson at every turn. The Reconstruction of the United States would not be accomplished only by the powers of persuasion. It would take the United States Army.

Johnson opposed the 14th Amendment, which granted full citizenship to anyone born on United States soil. Grant supported it. Johnson wished to speak out against it, along with many other Radical Republican measures in Congress on a speaking tour through the Midwest by train. Grant came along for moral support, but quickly tried to distance himself from Johnson, who was often heckled by crowds, and Johnson would respond in kind.

In 1868, matters between Congress and President Johnson came to a head with the Tenure of Office Act. This act made it illegal for the President to remove from office without Congressional approval. Johnson wished to remove Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (who was leaking information to the Radicals) and replace him with Grant. At first, Grant accepted the job, but, realizing that he had a chance to become President later in the year, declined. Eventually, Stanton was replaced. The House impeached Johnson and he escaped conviction by one vote.

The Presidential Election of 1868 was perfectly set up for Ulysses Grant. No one else in the country had the stature to take over.  Grant won the nomination without any opposition. Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax was named as Grant’s running mate.

The Democrats nominated former New York Governor Horatio Seymour. Seymour was no match for the hugely popular Grant. With much of the white Democratic vote in the South suppressed by the Army, Grant won by a 214-80 margin in the Electoral Vote and had 52.7% of the popular vote.

While everyone knew of Grant’s military heroics, very little was known about how he would govern. Not many people seemed to care too much about that at the time.

Grant would not reveal the names of his choices for Cabinet posts until he forwarded them on to the Senate. Some of his choices were curious. For example, he chose an Ohio friend, Elihu Washburne for Secretary of State. But, Washburne resigned the post after 12 days to become Minister to France. Grant felt that Washburne would be considered a more prestigious emissary with “former Secretary of State” on his resumé. Hamilton Fish would replace Washburne for the next eight years.

Grant’s military chief of staff, John Rawlins, was supposed to head up the Army in the Southwest, but Rawlins told Grant that he would rather be Secretary of War. And Rawlins got the job. But, he died in September of 1869 of tuberculosis.

A quiet, but wealthy campaign contributor from Philadelphia, Adolph Borie, became Secretary of the Navy. However, Borie did not know anything about naval affairs. Grant just thought he would like the job. Borie resigned the position in June of 1869.

Grant also wanted to pick financier Alexander Stewart to be Secretary of the Treasury. However, Stewart’s vast wealth and many entanglements with Federal funds, made the Senate balk at his nomination. Grant withdrew Stewart and nominated George Boutwell, one of the House managers for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

Soon after taking office, Grant decided to tackle the issue of the national debt, which had ballooned to nearly $3 billion (about $46 trillion in today’s money, almost four times today’s national debt.) Grant had Congress pass a law requiring that the debt be repaid with gold and not paper money. Grant wished to avoid inflation at all costs.

The increased demand for gold led two New York speculators, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, to try to corner the gold market. With inside knowledge from one of Grant’s brothers-in-law, the two men persuaded the Treasury to delay public sales of gold. Gould would buy large sums of gold, which served to drive up the price. The idea would be that when people tried to redeem their greenbacks for gold, they would reap even more money. The whole plan fell apart though when the Treasury sold a large amount of gold earlier than expected, which sent prices plummeting. Many people were ruined, although Gould and Fisk were not, and neither faced any criminal prosecution.

Grant’s response to this crisis gave people the impression that he was in the pocket of Wall Street, and likely in over his head in the job of President. Scandals would be a constant presence during Grant’s Administration.

Besides the national debt, one of the major crises for Grant was dealing with the problem of how to bring back the Southern states into the Union. Although the slaves were free, Southerners showed no inclination of allowing the freed slaves to vote.  Methods ranging from legal chicanery (such as literacy tests) to blatant violence (from groups like the Ku Klux Klan) were employed to keep African-Americans from voting.

Grant was not afraid to use Federal force to maintain order and uphold civil rights. Under Grant’s watch, the Fifteenth Amendment, which explicitly granted the franchise to all adult male citizens regardless of race, was adopted. Grant also created the Justice Department, headed by the Attorney General, to enforce civil rights laws. Prior to 1871, the Attorney General was mostly a glorified White House counsel. Grant made the position into one of the most powerful jobs in the country. Nevertheless, Grant’s desire to use Federal force to enforce black voting rights in the South was often more of a political calculation than a moral one.  Bunting admits that Grant would time Federal activities in the South to help with elections in various parts of the country.

Toward the end of Grant’s first term, a major scandal shook up his Administration. It would be known as the Credit Mobilier Scandal. Credit Mobilier was a construction company set up by the Union Pacific railway. Several members of Congress had taken bribes, usually in the form of stock, to give the Union Pacific favorable votes in Congress. Vice President Colfax was caught up in the scandal and dropped from the ticket in 1872.

The Democrats did not run an opponent against Grant in 1872. Instead, an odd coalition of government reformers who were opposed to the rampant use of political patronage jobs, as well as Northerners who objected to the continuation of military Reconstruction in the South, formed a group called the Liberal Republicans. They nominated newspaper publisher Horace Greeley.

Greeley had never held elective office before. His campaign never got very far as he proved to be a rather unusual character. He always wore a long coat and carried an umbrella regardless of the weather.

Grant had little trouble winning another term. He won with 286 electoral votes and 55.6% of the popular vote. Soon after the election, Greeley’s wife died. Bereft after her passing, Greeley soon died as well, leaving his 66 pledged electors to vote for whomever they wanted. (For those not scoring at home, here is how the voting went.)

The next four years for Grant would bring about even more scandal. His new Vice President, Henry Wilson, turned out to also be involved in the Credit Mobilier scandal. However, he passed away in 1874, before any final determination of his complicity.

In 1873, Congress passed a law doubling the President’s salary to $50,000. That did not bother people. What bothered people was that Congress voted itself a raise and made it retroactive for two years. And members of Congress would get a $5,000 bonus on top of that. Public opposition forced the repeal of this pay raise (but not Grant’s) in 1874.

Grant’s personal secretary had to resign in connection in a tax evasion scheme involving distillers. The Secretary of War extorted money to allow a trading post to stay open. The Attorney General took a bribe to stop the prosecution of a case against a customs house.

Adding to all this was a major financial crisis: the Panic of 1873. This crisis came about because of speculation in the railroad industry. Those stocks became over-valued and then collapsed in price. Banks began to fail. Unemployment shot up. Wages declined. Congress wanted to relieve the credit crisis by allowing more greenbacks into circulation. But, Grant vetoed the measure, keeping in line with his strong belief in the gold standard, as well as a fear of inflation. Although it did take time (until 1879 when Grant was out of office), the economy did right itself.

It might seem that Grant did little right. Bunting does not believe that to be the case. He believes that the domestic ills were the result of Grant’s military background and his belief that he could delegate authority correctly.

Bunting also gives Grant credit for foreign policy successes. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish negotiated a major treaty with Great Britain over a dispute that originally centered on a claim that the United States had against the British for helping the Confederate Navy build a steamer called the Alabama. Fish initially received monetary remuneration from Britain, but Senate Foreign Relations Chair Charles Sumner declared that to be inadequate. Sumner believed the Alabama extended the Civil War for two years. Sumner wanted Canada as payback.

Fish ultimately got the British (and Sumner) to come to an agreement to have the matter sent to binding arbitration. Fish would also negotiate a sticky border dispute between the U.S. and Canada in the newly acquired Alaska Territory.

Bunting makes a case that Grant had the most humane policy toward Native Americans of any President. Grant wanted to smooth relations between the various Native American nations and the United States. He wanted to establish schools. He appointed Native Americans to administer the programs. Grant wanted to complete Jefferson’s dream of making the original inhabitants of the United States Americans on equal standing with those who came later.

Sadly, this was not to be. Toward the end of Grant’s administration in 1876, when an Army Cavalry regiment under the command of Colonel George Armstrong Custer, was wiped out by a Lakota-Cheyenne force at the Little Bighorn River. Public opinion no longer favored giving the Native Americans any more aid.

After leaving the White House, Ulysses and Julia Grant took a tour of Europe that lasted over two years. They were celebrities wherever they went, but, to Grant’s disappointment, he was mostly honored as a general, not a President. He came back to the United States hoping to reenter the political fray in 1880 as a candidate for President.

The Republican Convention could not decide between Grant and James Blaine of Maine. James Garfield was nominated as a compromise choice. Grant had to leave the arena.

Unfortunately, a bad investment left Grant nearly penniless. Wealthy benefactors helped out as much as they could. Around this time, Grant developed a sharp pain in his throat. It turned out to be throat cancer.

With little time to live, Grant opted to sign with a publisher to write his memoirs. Despite being in tremendous pain, Grant produced a two-volume work. He finished writing the manuscript on July 18, 1885. He died on July 23, 1885 in Mount McGregor, New York. (Grant is the only President known to have died from cancer.) The memoirs earned his estate over $450,000 in royalties.

Bunting’s book does not make the most persuasive case that Grant was anything but a mediocre to terrible President. Grant should be credited for his strong stance on civil rights and his relatively enlightened attitude toward Native Americans. Ulysses S. Grant as President probably seemed like a good idea at the time for the United States. But, the United States did not have the brilliant military strategist as President. Instead, the country got the ne’er-do-well who could not hold a job before the Civil War. We all have some job that we are best suited for. For Ulysses S. Grant, that job was in the military, not in civilian life.

Other stuff: Grant was 46 years old at the time of his inauguration, making him the youngest man to hold the office at the time. Vice President Schuyler Colfax was just 45.

Grant’s birthplace in Point Pleasant, Ohio is open to visitors. It is operated by the Ohio Historical Society. Grant and his wife Julia are entombed at the General Grant National Memorial in New York City at 122nd and Riverside. It is familiarly called Grant’s Tomb. It is operated by the National Park Service.

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Abraham Lincoln by George S. McGovern

President #16, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #1

The Standard

lincolnBack when I was in eighth grade, I entered an American history essay contest at a local prep school. The winner would receive a partial scholarship to the school. It was actually a timed test in a classroom setting and we didn’t know what the question would be.

I had barely made it to the school in time as I had to serve as an altar boy at my local church. As it turned out, the church was beginning a special prayer service called “Forty Hours Devotion.” (If you’re Catholic, you probably know what I’m talking about. If you’re not, you can read about it here.) The Mass that preceded the Forty Hours Devotion took an extra long time, so my classmates and I barely made it to the school in time for the test.

The essay question was: Name the greatest President and explain why. I opted to pick Abraham Lincoln, cranked out about eight paragraphs in an hour, and went home. A week later, I found out I had won the contest, which guaranteed me admission to the school for the next year. This turned out to be a mixed blessing as that school was awful, and I spent the most miserable year of my childhood there.

What’s my point here? I’m not sure. But, I hope I’m writing something more cogent on the man that I and nearly every historian considers to be America’s greatest President than I did back in eighth grade.

Abraham Lincoln biographies are not hard to find. He is the most popular figure in American history to write about. His life story almost defines America. He left an enormous amount of writing behind. He was one of the most intelligent men to hold the office, despite having just one year of formal education. He was, perhaps, the best speaker to be President. And to, top it off, he was also an incredibly shrewd politician.

George McGovern, the former Senator from South Dakota and failed Presidential candidate in 1972, added to the canon of Lincoln biographies with this slender work, released this year, the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. It is a good read about the life of the most famous President. Also, McGovern manages to add some new details about Lincoln’s political dealings that added to my understanding of the 16th President.

Abraham Lincoln, so closely identified with the state of Illinois, was actually born in then Hardin County, Kentucky on February 12, 1809. He shares his birthday with Charles Darwin. His parents were Thomas and Nancy. And, as we’ve learned from childhood, Lincoln was born in a log cabin.

Thomas Lincoln wasn’t extremely poor; but, due to some financial setbacks, he moved the family out of Kentucky to Indiana. Thomas also did not feel comfortable living in a state where slavery was legal. In Indiana, Nancy Lincoln passed away at age 34 after contracting a fever from drinking milk from diseased cows. Thomas would later remarry. Abraham’s stepmother, Sarah, was the one who saw that young Abraham was a special child. She gave him books and did her best to educate him. Lincoln would develop a formidable knowledge of literature and history. He also became an accomplished speaker and writer almost entirely of his own making. Few Presidents not named Thomas Jefferson were as well-read as Lincoln, and perhaps none was more eloquent as a writer and speaker.

In 1830, the family settled in Illinois, first in Macon County, and then later in Coles County. At age 22, Abraham Lincoln set out on his own and moved to New Salem, Illinois.

Lincoln was interested in politics early. He ran for a seat in the Illinois Legislature in 1832 at age 23. He finished in eighth place. But, in 1834, Lincoln won. He ran as a Whig Party candidate and favored Henry Clay’s (his political idol) platform of a national bank and Federally-funded internal improvements. At this time, Lincoln began to teach himself law. He would soon be admitted to the Illinois State Bar. He quickly gained a reputation as a formidable litigator.

During his time as a legislator, Lincoln saw other dramatic changes in his personal life. His first love, a woman named Ann Rutledge, passed away in 1835. Lincoln went into a deep depression, one that likely would have required hospitalization today. These bouts of depression would recur throughout Lincoln’s life even when he was President.

Lincoln eventually became engaged to a woman named Mary Todd. The relationship started and stopped due to each person’s delicate psychological conditions. They eventually married late in 1842. They would have four sons, but only one, the eldest Robert, lived past the age of 18.

In 1844, Lincoln decided to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. However, the district had three Whig party candidates, all of whom were friends. Lincoln hit upon the idea that each of the three should serve one term and then give the office to the next in line.

So, Lincoln was not elected to the House of Representatives until 1846. Lincoln was an outspoken opponent of President James Polk’s plans to declare war with Mexico. Lincoln opposed the war because he opposed giving the South more territory where it could expand slavery. At this point, Lincoln was not opposed to slavery, per se, just to its expansion in to new territories.

Lincoln looked forward to the election of a Whig President in 1848. Zachary Taylor turned his success on the battlefield into a home at the White House. However, Taylor died in office. His successor, Millard Fillmore, signed into law the Compromise of 1850, which divided up the new territories into free and slave areas. This had the effect of repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820, an act which Lincoln felt was essential to checking the growth of slavery in the United States. Back in Illinois, all Lincoln could do was rally Whig opposition to the measure. Although this was futile, Lincoln made important political connections in Illinois through his efforts.

The Whig Party died out after Winfield Scott lost to Franklin Pierce in the 1852 Presidential election. The party split along sectional lines. Northern Whigs formed a new party that was strongly opposed to the spread of slavery. They called themselves Republicans.

In 1854, Lincoln gave what McGovern described as his first great speech. Before a crowd in Peoria on October 16, 1854, Lincoln railed against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, another attempt to smooth out the slavery controversy. This act allowed for “popular sovereignty” (essentially plebiscites of the residents of the territories, although it never worked perfectly) to decide whether or not the Kansas and Nebraska territories would be organized as free or slave states.

Lincoln declared the measure to be contrary to earlier laws like the Missouri Compromise, as well as antithetical to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.

Repeal the Missouri compromise—repeal all compromises—repeal the declaration of independence—repeal all past history, you still can not repeal human nature. It still will be the abundance of man’s heart, that slavery extension is wrong; and out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth will continue to speak.

The speech greatly raised Lincoln’s national profile in the slavery debate. According to McGovern, it also represented a turning point in Lincoln’s life. Slavery was becoming less of a political issue and more of a moral one to Lincoln.

In 1858, Lincoln was tabbed by the Republicans to run for the Senate against the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Stephen Douglas. Lincoln gave, in McGovern’s view, his second great speech in accepting the nomination. (Emphasis mine.)

If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.

Lincoln and Douglas would engage in a series of seven debates throughout Illinois. It turned out to compelling political theater (even though each debate lasted over three and a half hours) as the race drew national attention. Lincoln, who stood 6’4″ (tallest ever to become President), faced off against the 5’4″ Douglas. Both men could command the stage. In the end, the Democrats won  enough seats in the Illinois legislature to reelect Douglas to the Senate.

Nevertheless, the publicity generated from the debates further improved Lincoln’s position nationwide. In 1860, it was beginning to look increasingly like the Republicans could win the Presidency, as the Democrats started to tear apart on a sectional basis. In February of 1860, Lincoln gave what McGovern called “his third famous speech.” It was an address at the Cooper Union in New York City.

The speech laid out Lincoln’s idea that the Founding Fathers intended for slavery to disappear. He urged the Federal government to act and do the right thing. Slavery was too important of an issue to be used as a political bargaining chip.

Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored – contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man – such as a policy of “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care – such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance – such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.

At the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago, Lincoln’s supporters managed to get him nominated on the second ballot. There were backroom deals (Cabinet choices and patronage promises) made to help secure some delegates; but, ultimately, the Republicans knew that Lincoln had wide appeal to all Northerners.

The Democrats could not agree on a candidate. They held two conventions and nominated two different candidates, Douglas and John Breckinridge. John Bell of Tennessee was a fourth candidate, running under the Constitutional Union Party banner. Bell tried to appeal to the still strong nativist movement (think Lou Dobbs) that had once been called the Know-Nothing Party.

Even though Lincoln did not appear on the ballot in eight Southern states, he won the election easily. Lincoln picked up 39.9% of the popular vote. Douglas finished in second at 29.5%. In terms of electoral votes, Lincoln had 180 with Breckinridge in second at 72.

Southerners reacted to the election of Lincoln by threatening to secede. Lincoln did not believe that Southern states would go with through such a plan. It had been talked about for decades, dating back to the Jackson administration. But, this time, the South meant it. South Carolina voted to secede in December of 1860. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, eight states has passed acts of secession.

Due to threats made against his life, Lincoln sneaked into Washington in the middle of the night before the Inauguration. In his Inaugural Address, he held out an olive branch to the South.

Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that— I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

However, just a month later, Lincoln decided to send supplies to Fort Sumter, in Charleston, South Carolina. Southerners interpreted this action as hostile and opened fire on the fort. The Civil War had begun.

Lincoln’s actions during the beginning of the Civil War were controversial and remain so to this day. Believing that secession was unconstitutional, Lincoln refused to meet with any Southern leaders. He viewed their actions as acts of rebellion.

Soon after the Civil War began, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus rights. At first, the suspension was only in an area immediately surrounding the capital, although it would later extend to the whole country. Lincoln believed that he had to take drastic steps to keep the secessionists in check. However, the President has no authority to suspend the right of habeas corpus. That right is reserved to Congress (Congress would subsequently approve the suspension.) Despite an unfavorable court ruling, Lincoln maintained the suspension of habeas corpus. Even McGovern, who writes in a worshipful style, has a hard time defending Lincoln’s actions.

Later on, Lincoln would order newspapers that were sympathetic to the Confederacy to be shut down. He also authorized the Treasury to make direct cash payments to individuals, another unconstitutional action. (The Treasury can only make payments to people if Congress appropriates the money.)

DSCF0718Nevertheless, Lincoln believed that he had to take these drastic steps in order to preserve the union and the Constitution.

By 1862, Lincoln had finally moved into the camp that believed that slavery had to be totally abolished. Lincoln did not want to wait for the war to end. He believed that under his powers as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, that he could order the freedom of the slaves. In the summer of 1862, Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. He showed it to his Cabinet. Secretary of State William Seward, who would become Lincoln’s most trusted adviser, told him that the Proclamation should not be issued until after a major victory by Federal forces. Seward feared that if the Emancipation Proclamation were issued when the Confederacy was winning on the battlefield, it would look like a desperate maneuver to curry favor internationally.

However, early in the war, the Confederacy was winning more than its share of battles. The Union Army was hampered by poor leadership. Union generals were unwilling to confront the main portion of the Confederate Army.  But, after the horrifically bloody battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, a day that saw more Americans die on a battlefield than any other day ever (over 3,600 men on both sides), Lincoln felt that his military position was secure enough to issue the Proclamation.

On September 22, 1862, Lincoln’s proclamation read, in part:

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

While the Emancipation Proclamation did little in actually making any slave free immediately, it forever changed the terms of the engagement. The Civil War was no longer being fought over abstract concepts like Federal or State sovereignty. It was not fought over the concept of whether or not the Constitution was a voluntary pact. It was now a battle between two forces: one who believed that no one had the right to hold another person as property, and another that believed that it did.

Lincoln was an active Commander in Chief during the Civil War. He changed generals in charge of the Army as often as George Steinbrenner changed Yankees managers in the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1863 that Lincoln finally found his man: Ulysses S. Grant. Grant agreed with Lincoln’s concept of fighting a total war against the South. No longer would the Union just try to wear down the South into surrender. Instead, the North would try to destroy the South completely.

The process would be a long and painful one. Hundreds of thousands died during the Civil War. Lincoln started conscripting soldiers, a plan that met with massive opposition in parts of the country. In New York City, riots in opposition to conscription lasted for a week and killed over 100 people. But, the Union Army kept getting its supply of soldiers. And the Union contingent would always remain numerically superior to the Confederacy.

On November 19, 1863, Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A cemetery for the soldiers who died in massive battle there earlier in July was to be dedicated. Lincoln spoke only briefly at the ceremony. But his words, the Gettysburg Address, are, perhaps, the most famous speech ever given by a President. Lincoln succinctly summarized everything that the United States was fighting for and what it hoped to be.

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Despite the war, there was still another election to be held in 1864. Lincoln believed that a Presidential election would be beneficial to the country. It would demonstrate that the nation’s democratic principles had not been compromised by the rebellion.

Lincoln took no chances during the election. He dropped his Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin, from the ticket in favor of pro-Union Tennessee senator Andrew Johnson. Hamlin had been toying with the idea of replacing Lincoln with Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase. Lincoln decided to take both Hamlin and Chase out of the picture. Chase would become Chief Justice. Other Republicans wanted Grant to run in 1864, but the general declined.

The Democrats ran one of Lincoln’s fired commanders, George McClellan. Although McClellan had shown to be mostly incompetent on the battlefield, the soldiers he commanded had mostly loved him. The election of 1864 was expected to be close. McClellan’s hope rested on the belief that the North was tired of the war and would accept peace at any terms. Lincoln even believed that he was going to lose.

But, in the fall of 1864, the war began to turn decisively in the Union’s favor. On September 2, 1864, Union forces under the command of General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta and burnt it to the ground. Grant’s troops won a series of bloody conflicts in Virginia.

Lincoln, a master politician at any time, arranged for soldiers to get leaves to go home to vote, or, to vote absentee from the battlefields. Soldiers became fundraisers for Lincoln in some cases. The election of 1864 was a huge victory for Lincoln. Lincoln won all but three states (Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey) and over 55% of the vote.

After the election, Sherman led his army on a march through the state of Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah, laying waste to nearly everything in its path. The South was being brought to its knees by the onslaught of power from the North.

With victory seemingly at hand, Lincoln again struck a conciliatory tone during his Second Inaugural. The brief address (the shortest Inaugural Address ever given) contained these words:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Although it may have seemed that all of Lincoln’s activities as President involved the war, he made three other notable contributions to the United States. The first was the income tax, which was implemented as a wartime measure to raise funds. The second was the Homestead Act, which gave away land in the territories to people who would improve it. The third was the Morrill Act, which set up the Land Grant College system, which established many of the nation’s largest and most prestigious state universities. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which formally banned slavery in the United States, was passed by Congress during Lincoln’s time, although it would be ratified later.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee finally surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865. The war was over. Five days later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Washington. Lincoln had now become a martyr. He passed almost instantly from politician to legend.

McGovern asks if anything can be learned from rehashing the life of Abraham Lincoln so many times. Perhaps, we don’t think about Lincoln’s life enough. As McGovern writes:

Abraham Lincoln holds the highest place in American history.  General William T. Sherman said, “Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.” He was our greatest president, against whom all others will forever be measured. We wish our leaders could be more like him; we wish we all could be. There has never been an American story like Abraham Lincoln’s.

Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency was far from perfect. But if you compare him to the men who came before and after him in the office, he was indispensable. One adage goes “History is written by the winners.” Thankfully for the United States, I wrote about Abraham Lincoln the way I did.

Other stuff: Abraham Lincoln is memorialized seemingly everywhere. He is buried in Springfield, Illinois, which is also the site of the Abraham Lincoln Home. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the capital. If you can’t find something that bears Abraham Lincoln’s image on it, you are either someone who doesn’t like pennies, or you are a person who believes that the South will rise again. If you’re the latter, you’re wrong. All the South gets now is exaggerated love of its college football teams from ESPN.

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